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Medical Expert: Herd Immunity Remains Best Way To Get Handle On COVID-19 Pandemic

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- From those first COVID-19 vaccinations, to booster shots, there are growing options for people both young and old to protect themselves from coronavirus.

It's leading to questions about the future: Will we need annual booster shots? Will these vaccines combat new variants? Will we ever reach herd immunity?

In order to get a handle on the pandemic, experts say we need to reach something called herd immunity.

"I think we need to at least have 90% of the population that is protected by either vaccination or natural infection, with a combination of both," said Dr. Paul Offit of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

But the U.S. is not even at 60% vaccinated at this point. Offit, a professor of pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Food and Drug Administration Vaccine Recommendation Panel, said we may be able to reach some form of herd immunity.

"If you define herd immunity as a critical decrease in this virus' ability to spread from one person to another, so much so that you have a dramatic decrease in hospitalizations and deaths, I think the answer is yes. But in order to do that, we're going to have to figure out a way to vaccinate the unvaccinated," Offit said.


The question is why have so many people refused the COVID vaccines? One argument is that we accept the flu, which causes 400,000 to 700,000 hospitalizations and 20,000 to 60,000 deaths a year.

"In many ways, this virus is worse than flu. What this virus does, and, frankly, no respiratory virus does, is it causes you to make an immune response to the lining of your own blood vessels, causing inflammation or vasculitis. And, therefore, all organ systems can be affected," Offit said. "For children, that disease is called MIS-C, multi-system inflammatory disease, where kids come into our hospital with not only lung disease, but heart, liver, kidney disease. It's hard to watch."


The good news is that new vaccine technology will allow us to develop vaccines effective against new variants, but the challenge remains how to reach herd immunity.

"If we start to see variants that are produced that are more and more resistant to vaccine-induced immunity, that's going to be a problem," Offit said. "I think, too, and this is one of the biggest ones, is misinformation. There's just a lot of bad information out there that's readily available that's causing people to make bad decisions for themselves and for their children.

"The third is... Nobody should tell me what to do with my body, which is fine if you're talking about not getting a tetanus vaccine. I mean, if you still upon a rusty nail, choose not to get a tetanus vaccine, get tetanus, no one's gonna catch tetanus from you. It's not a contagious disease. That's a personal choice. This is a contagious virus. This is a virus that you can transmit to other people. So you're not just making a personal choice," Offit added. "And I think that's probably the most upsetting part in all this, which is we just don't seem to care about our neighbor."

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